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Brandon, Laurel have what it takes for retiree program

After 10 years of no new communities named to the Hometown Mississippi Retirement Program, Brandon and Laurel have joined the ranks of this distinctive statewide list. There are now 21 certified cities in the program administered by the Mississippi Development Authority (MDA). The competition and the requirements were intense.

MDA’s executive director Leland Speed said the number of Mississippi communities applying for the status in this year’s review process was impressive and reflects the increasing benefits being achieved when business and community organizations join forces to help their communities.

“The Hometown Mississippi Retirement Certification recognizes the positive opportunities and the contributions which partnerships make to build stronger communities through shared commitment, energy and creativity,” he said.

Created in 1994, the program’s mission is to promote Mississippi as a retirement haven to pre-retirees and retirees throughout America. It assists state communities in their preparation to market themselves as retirement locations and develop communities that retirees will find attractive for a retirement lifestyle.

Program manager Diana O’Toole says this market segment represents the potential for a sizable economic impact on the state’s economy. “Results from the recent study conducted by Mississippi State University on the impacts found that 7,490 retirees can be attributed to the Hometown Retirement Program and translates into a total economic impact of approximately $194 million per year (in 2002 dollars) and the creation of approximately 2,320 jobs per year,” she said. “Additionally, these counties attracted approximately 341 more retirees per county during the period of 1995 to 2000 than they would have been expected to attract given their general county characteristics.”

No new communities were certified during the past 10 years mainly due to budget considerations at MDA, O’Toole said. There were 26 cities on the waiting list. All were invited to participate in this year’s certification process. Of that number, 14 participated. Two were eliminated with 11 continuing with site visits by the review committee.

“We were most impressed with the communities and found that two met all the requirements,” O’Toole said. “We made recommendations to the other nine. We didn’t tell anyone they didn’t make the grade. They can keep working on it and can improve. We want to make sure we showcase the best.”

Some cities were eliminated due to a lack of quality medical care or relying on the amenities of another city to qualify or too close of a proximity to a city already certified. O’Toole says the quality of Brandon’s senior services program and the city’s desire to recruit senior citizens whether they’re certified or not made the Rankin County municipality stand out. For Laurel, it was the Jones County city’s curb appeal, high quality medical care and cultural attractions.

Angela Jones, Brandon’s senior program director, points out that her city is growing tremendously but still has a small town atmosphere. “We’re all friends here and welcome newcomers with open arms,” she said. “We have recreational activities for all ages and are adding more activities all the time.”

Some 35% of the city’s 33,000 population is in the retirement segment. Brandon mails a senior newsletter and is building a senior services center that will open in 2007. Jones touts Brandon’s low crime rate, excellent city services, storm-ready certification, highest water quality ranking and variety of available housing.

In Laurel, Paulette Frohman manages the retirement program in her hometown. After living in New Orleans for 25 years, she was proud to come home to the “rustic elegance” of Laurel.

“It’s a great place for nature lovers with walking trails, recreational areas and little jewels of parks,” she said of the city’s 95 acres of parks. “It’s the prettiest place in the spring.”

Frohman believes retirees will enjoy the history and Southern culture available in this city of 18,000 where the Lauren Rogers Art Museum is a state treasure. Many organizations are thrilled with Laurel’s new designation, including the Historic Neighborhoods Association.

“Everyone wants to help. We have a very supportive city,” she added. “We are adding a section for retirees to our Web site and can use this designation as an economic development recruitment tool. It’s a win/win for everyone.”

The program contributes in the development of retirement communities and life-care communities for economic development purposes. It also encourages tourism to Mississippi in the form of mature market travel who on average make three to five visits to a place before making a relocation decision. Once this segment has settled in a retirement community, friends and family visit them there.

O’Toole notes that the target market is the fastest-growing and wealthiest economic market sector in America with 12,000 Baby Boomers turning 50 daily. More than 400,000 people annually move to another state upon retirement.

To attain certification, cities must have official community support, a designated sponsor and funding of at least $20,000 per year for the local program. In the quality of life category, the following criteria must be met:

• A hospital within a 30-minute drive or closer.

• Adequate medical services.

• Available housing.

• Adult education opportunities.

• Goods and services available (shopping, restaurants, pharmacies, etc.).

• Recreational opportunities such as golf, walking and exercising.

• Cultural opportunities such as theater, art galleries and recitals.

• Crime rate comparable to the national average.

• Civic/community pride that includes the appearance of the entrances into the downtown area, quality of housing, economic equity and vitality.

After certification, certain requirements must be met each year to remain in the program. These include marketing activities, quarterly reports and attending state program meetings.

Mississippi’s retirement certification program was recently honored with the Seal of Approval from the American Association of Retirement Communities. This recognition identifies municipalities and master planned communities that provide the quality of life that today’s retirees seek. Mississippi’s program was used as a guide for the designation in other states.

“It has been heartening to hear that other states are looking at our program as a model,” O’Toole said.

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at mbj@msbusiness.com.

About Lynn Lofton

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